Since the existing FDRE constitution was enacted in 1995, Ethiopia has held six general elections in 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2021. The then Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party dominated the last five elections, securing the majority of the seats in the House of People Representatives and regional state councils. Many say that the 2005 election was more democratic than the previous ones.
The elections in 1995 and 2000 were known for harassment of opposition parties. Prominent and influential political parties and figures boycotted the polls, losing hope in the process. The 2005 elections were deemed to be fair and free as the ruling EPRDF showed a commitment to open the election for international observers and consider the requests from opposition parties. However, the election did not yield the expected outcome as the opposition parties and the ruling party ran into a dispute. It was followed by violence and hostilities directed at political figures. Many politicians were arrested while the remaining fled from the country.
During the 2015 general elections, the election board announced that the ruling party EPRDF had won 100 percent of the parliamentary seats. But it was followed by popular protests and chaos.
In addition to the socio-economic problems and the political crisis, people were discontented with the regime. The continuous unrest and youth movement that emerged to massive violence led the former Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, to resign. This paved the way for Abiy Ahmed who assumed office in 2018.
One of the applaudable achievements of Abiy Ahmed was reforming the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), which was criticized for being untrustworthy and affiliated with the ruling party.
The latest elections were supposed to be held in 2020. However, they were pushed to 2021 due to the outbreak of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
A few days ago, the 2021 general elections were held in 440 constituencies out of the 547 constituencies. Second-round elections are expected to be held in early September. The elections held in June were appreciated by many for being fairer than the previous ones, regardless of complaints and other irregularities.
The 2021 National Election and Course of Disinformation
In this era, where social, economical, and political activities are highly affected by the digital world, information disorder is becoming a sad reality. As social media and the internet are considered the leading sources of information, tampering with news is becoming common and widely practiced.
Most of the time elections are followed with both mis- and disinformation during pre-election and post-election periods. Usually, disinformation happens due to the information gap from stakeholders and by those who intentionally disseminate false information. In the following article, HaqCheck analyzed the trend that was observed during the election held on June 21.
Fabricated content like the 14 pages false document, which was disseminated by The Finfine Intercept station, is one of them. This Facebook page claims that the document is a security analysis prepared by Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party, aka EZEMA. The document raised a dispute between political parties, where the Freedom and Equality party asked for an explanation and later Ethiopian citizens for social justice announced saying “the document doesn’t represent EZEMA and EZEMA doesn't know about it”.
Fake accounts and pages by the name of political parties, candidates, and politicians were used to deceive and mislead the public. Facebook also announced it had removed a network of fake accounts in Ethiopia targeting domestic users ahead of the election. About 65 Facebook accounts, 52 Pages, 27 Groups, and 32 accounts on Instagram, linked to individuals associated with the Information Network Security Agency of Ethiopia, were removed. This was due to the violation of the Facebook inauthenticity coordinated behavior policy, according to Facebook’s statement.
Manipulation of media content was the other face of the disinformation trend during the pre-election. The audio that was released on May 3 is a good example. In the “leaked audio” Prime Minister Abiy is heard addressing a Prosperity Party executive committee meeting on May 27. The Haqcheck team has investigated the audio and ascertained it was a manipulated one which was made by assembling different sound bites.
During and post-election
Misleading information about the election and with different formats was observed sporadically on the day of the election.
CNN’s article, titled ”Voting underway in Ethiopia amid conflict and a raging humanitarian crisis”, published on the election day, referred to a tweet from an account by the name of Merera Gudina, chairman of OFC. But neither the account nor the ideas in the article were Merera’s. A few hours after the story was published, CNN made a correction on it.
(Image: part of the article before the correction)
Manipulated images were also used, to misinform the public, like the Facebook post claiming to show the election center in the western Shoa zone Liban Jawi Woreda Burqa kebele was controlled by Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).
There was a tweet circulating following the death of John Marsh (Ph.D.), Program Manager of Ethiopia for the Carter’s Program. The tweet reads “Just in time Election observers (foreigner) is killed at Radisson Blu Hotel in Addis Ababa. Surrounded by security forces, high tension in the area”. But on June 23, after the medical investigation by St. Paul hospital, the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission stated that Dr. Marsh’s death was confirmed as a natural death.
During the post-election period, complaints have been presented and posted on social media. The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) received complaints from parties. The NEBE responded to some of the complaints.
Voting, Vote Counting, and Announcement
Balderas for the genuine democracy party filed a complaint claiming that there have been complaints about the result announcement processes and that the papers posted were blurred. NEBE said that it had conducted investigations and electoral officers were counting the votes and reaffirming whether or not there is a problem regarding the results.
The Party also said that Balderas’ results had intentionally been reduced. NEBE responded that this was fake news.
The party also complained about the vote-counting process.
The party had complained that polling stations had been closed early while voters were lined up to vote and said that it was totally unacceptable.
Illegal Polling Stations
There was also a statement by Balderas for genuine democracy that polling stations had been established in the capital without the knowledge and recognition of NEBE. But NEBE refuted this and said every polling station has a code to identify them. NEBE also admitted that there had been two polling stations found without code but they were given a code later on and are eligible to host voting.
In the following days, there was an allegation on social media that ballot boxes were found filled with votes in ten polling stations in Dessie town. The chairwoman of the electoral board said that it was not true but there was some error concerning technical issues and the boxes had been quarantined.
Even though NEBE has banned announcing results before the final announcement there were many unconfirmed reports on social media regarding election results in various electoral regions.
Gamo Zone Forged Paper
There was an allegation on social media that a fake or forged ballot paper was found in a voter’s pocket in Gamo Zone, SNNPR. The zonal police investigated and later announced that the paper that was found was a paper previously used by NEBE for voters’ education and training.
Even though relevant authorities responded to claims, the disinformation had an impact on the electoral process to some degree. It included damaging the reputation of candidates and parties, as well as putting the credibility of NEBE at stake. Due to the false information that was circulating, voters felt tense and were intimidated. The controversies and the shortage of information also mislead the public.
As it’s known, some parts of the country that didn’t vote on June 21 will have an election in September. So, to ward off the disinformation and its consequences on the coming election, the Board is expected to give information at a much faster pace to minimize the impact that could be caused by the information gap.
HaqCheck recommends that the public and particularly social media users need to confirm information they come across, from credible sources mainly from the relevant stakeholders. Before sharing or reacting to misleading or unconfirmed content, they should cross-check the claims from credible media or concerning organizations.
Even though Facebook stated that it is making efforts to detect and remove hate speech, content that incites violence, and to reduce the spread of misinformation, the way it was doing it lacks transparency. HaqCheck believes such kind of information should be well communicated with local initiatives that work on countering disinformation. The big content platforms should support and work with local fact-checkers more, to minimize the damages of disinformation.
HaqCheck will also try to follow up on different claims that mislead the public or jeopardize the upcoming election.